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Theater Thu Aug 08 2013

Strange Bedfellows Theatre Invents Van Gogh

Thumbnail image for vangogh-patrick.jpg

Inventing Van Gogh is an intriguing story of Vincent van Gogh's mysterious last painting, one of his many self-portraits. Strange Bedfellows Theatre performs it in a time warp that moves easily back and forth between present day and the latter part of Van Gogh's life in Arles between 1888 and 1890. Aaron Hendrickson directs.

The play moves so easily back and forth in time that Patrick (Patrick Cameron), a contemporary artist hired to paint a forgery of Van Gogh's rumored last work, sometimes shares a scene with Van Gogh himself (Riley Mcilveen). Renne Bouchard (Adam Schulmerich), the art authenticator who hires Patrick, believes they can deceive the auction market and sell the "newly discovered" self-portrait for millions. A strong influence in Patrick's career is his former professor Jonas Miller (Sean Thomas), a Van Gogh scholar who dies while on a hunt for the painting. Miller's daughter, Hallie (Christine Vrem-Ydstie), plays Patrick's friend and also a woman who sits for Van Gogh.

In one delightfully anachronistic scene, Van Gogh brings a stack of his recent paintings to Patrick, a fellow painter. He wants to know what Patrick thinks of his work. Patrick does not hesitate to tell him: "You paint too fast. A painting a day? Really? You're a draftsman."

Patrick describes what the modern day art market has done for Van Gogh's work. "People love your work. That painting there--the sunflowers--will sell for 36 million dollars." Van Gogh looks distraught because Patrick knows his future. "Your paintings are on umbrellas, coffee mugs and mouse pads!" "Mouse pads?" Van Gogh looks appropriately puzzled. And finally, the most stinging blow: "Your paintings have done for art what elevators have done for music."

Playwright Steven Dietz, one of the most produced playwrights in regional theater, is also author of Dracula, Last of the Boys and The Nina Variations. Inventing Van Gogh allows him to display his love of art, in all its originality and excess. He shows us how hard it is to separate truth from myth.

For those who loved their art history courses and meandering through the splendid Impressionist collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, the play has many joys. Paul Gauguin (Schulmerich) and Van Gogh debate the painters whom Van Gogh admires, such as Millet, Breton and Delacroix. Gauguin at one point refers to Georges Seurat as "that insipid little painting machine." The play sometimes has a documentary feel; some of this dialogue was drawn from Van Gogh's letters.

The two-hour play might be a more successful theatrical production if it was trimmed to a 90-minute one-act, eliminating some of the artist-to-artist exchanges. These scenes, however delightful, were occasionally confusing and didn't help the story progress. They did allow us to get acquainted with the thinking of Van Gogh, the man and the artist, whose apparent suicide marks the end of the historical period presented.

Inventing Van Gogh is a challenging play for Strange Bedfellows; the company's motto is "Redefining Mischief." The direction and acting are fine, although some of the actors' accents were not consistent. Christine Vred-Ydstie and Sean Thomas did particularly good jobs in handling their dialogue from past to present.

The theater company enhances the experience by having painters create new works in Van Gogh's style, or modern interpretations thereof, in the lobby before the play begins. Playgoers can watch or chat with the painters about their work.


Inventing Van Gogh will run through August 25 at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Performance times vary. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online; for more information, visit the theater company's website.

Photo credit: Greg Inda.

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